- Mike Ives
In May 2007, Sara Mehalick posted a flyer around Burlington. “WANTED: COLLECTIVE MEMBERS,” it read. Soon her Old North End apartment was a hub of community organizing and a distribution point for the worker-run publisher AK Press.
About a year later, Mehalick and her twentysomething friends registered a nonprofit called the “Crash Collective.” A few weeks ago, they rented the ground floor of a house on Bank Street in downtown Burlington, set up a website — crashcollective.org — and posted a message on Front Porch Forum announcing the opening of an “infoshop” geared to “activist organizing and radical projects!”
“The space is here, and we’re looking for people in the community to step in,” Mehalick said Friday afternoon in the infoshop’s bright yellow library.
Four friends sat on the floor amid books by Henry David Thoreau, Howard Zinn and Bill Ayers. In a back room, flannel-clad Brian Sweeny tapped on a MacBook alongside bags filled with bulk spices. “It’s unwieldy,” Sweeny, who is 24, said of the infoshop. “It can go any direction within the mission statement.”
Cindy Milstein, a founding member of Black Sheep Books, a four-year-old Montpelier collective, said the term “infoshop” comes from Europe. The collectively run spaces promote radical and “anti-authoritarian” ideals through education, political discussion and community events. Black Sheep, which pays its $1000 rent through book sales, just moved from an attic above the Langdon Street Café to a more prominent space on State Street in downtown Montpelier.
Mehalick and other Crash Collective organizers say they are modeling their Burlington space on infoshops in Berkeley, Tel Aviv and Phoenix. They plan to host a weekly potluck and a “radical movie night,” share speakers with Black Sheep Books and open a bulk-food purchasing club. One hundred people have joined Crash’s list serve, Mehalick said, and local groups, including the oWL PaRTY, Burlington Permaculture, the Vermont Peace Economy Coalition and the Burlington chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, have expressed interest in using the Bank Street infoshop.
Milstein suggests that a string of events in the last 20 years — the fall of communism, the rise of the Zapatistas in Mexico, the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, to name a few — has inspired interest in infoshops across the United States. The recent election of Barack Obama, she added, has increased popular interest in community building while exposing a “tremendous amount of social anxiety.”
Milstein, a 50-year-old freelance copy editor who used to live in Burlington, hasn’t yet visited Crash Collective’s downtown digs. But the project reminds her of the Last Elm Café, a radically inclined space on North Street in the Old North End. Crash Collective organizers were only kids when Milstein helped run the Last Elm in the 1990s, but today they embody the same “anti-authoritarian impulse” that was lost when the café closed.
“This is how you build movements and multigenerational projects,” said Milstein, who met some Crash Collectivists a few weeks ago in Montpelier. “People become inspired . . . and want to do it themselves.”
Mehalick, a native of upstate New York who moved to Burlington when she was 17, said the infoshop will fill a void in the radical community. “There’s tons of really alternative art and music venues and interesting coffeeshops like the Radio Bean [in Burlington],” she said. “But there’s no place that’s explicitly a political hub except for the Peace & Justice Center.”
While the nonprofit PJC does have radical literature in its basement, perhaps the closest thing to a Queen City infoshop is the Radio Bean, a coffeehouse on North Winooski Avenue. Radio Bean founder Lee Anderson recalled that he founded the coffehouse, eight years ago, as a gathering place for activists and their ideas. Over time, though, the Bean’s mission expanded into a general embrace of “arts and expression.” (As part-time Burlington resident Mickey Western puts it, Radio Bean supports the “politics of joy.”)
Anderson said he expects the Crash Collective infoshop will be a welcome new forum in Burlington. “Having opinions out in the open lets people know where people in the community stand,” he said. “You have to find where the polar opposites are in order to find that position of equipoise.”
According to Crash organizer Jean Marie Pearce, the collective’s costs — rent, utilities and general operations — will run about $1000 a month. She hopes to cover those expenses with donations from collective members and visitors to the infoshop. In its first month of operation, however, Crash organizers collected less than $400 from about 20 donors.
“Most of us are pretty new to fundraising, and I’m pretty nervous about it,” Mehalick admitted. “But I think that enough people will hopefully be excited about this space that they’ll be excited to help keep it open.”